2022 Paul Ecke, Jr. & Altman Family Scholarship Recipients

2022 Paul Ecke, Jr. & Altman Family Scholarship Recipients

Shaping the Future of the Industry

The graduate work of this year’s Paul Ecke, Jr. and Altman Family Scholarship recipients is already reshaping the floriculture and horticulture industry with improvements for growers and environmental benefits. Congratulations to the 2022 Recipients!

These five outstanding scholars – each with resumes listing numerous accomplishments in fieldwork, academic presentations, and published research – have contributed to the growing scientific understanding of the industry. Equally important, they have used their nascent platforms to share knowledge with growers, ensuring that positive change is swiftly implemented.

All have a dedicated love for plants and flowers that was instilled in them from an early age. All have a deep curiosity for the science that can be harnessed to improve an industry that is not only a source of joy but also dedicated to environmental protection. Working to promote pollinators, reduce fertilizer use, improve crop diversification, and stop fungi blight, their research aims to save growers time and money while respecting and aiding a delicate ecological system.

Each is an advocate not only for their individual projects but also for the industry as a whole nurturing professional development, collaboration, and science-based understanding for people working at all stages of the horticulture industry.

2022 Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholar – Juan Quijia Pillajo

The Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholar awards $5,000 a year for two years ($10,000 total) to a dedicated MS/Ph.D. student attending a U.S. land-grant university. The scholarship is in honor of the late Paul Ecke, Jr., who contributed vital knowledge to the industry through innovative research and education programs. The recipient is recognized as a passionate graduate student dedicated to research and education in the floriculture and horticulture industry.
For more information, click here

Juan Quijia Pillajo, The Ohio State University

Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholarship recipient Juan-Quijia-Pillajo holding flowers in a Greenhouse.

Juan Quijia Pillajo grew up surrounded by the pansies, petunias, and other ornamental flowers of his family’s greenhouses in Nayon, Ecuador. Watching them work through trial and error, he became convinced that an understanding of the science could eliminate the guesswork.

“They will do it, but with no training,” he said. “My family always faced struggles because they didn’t know but through trial and error. Sometimes that causes a lot of problems. I wanted to be able to learn and share with all the growers in the area. My motivation is to help other people to succeed.”

Quijia Pillajo earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture at Zamorano University, where he began his more-focused educational journey in the floral industry. He was hooked. A master’s in molecular biology research soon followed.

Then he opened his own greenhouse in Ecuador, putting his knowledge to the test by growing cyclamen. “I developed a growing program to properly culture it,” he said.

Business was good. He taught his mother. She taught others. Inspiring a ripple effect of continued learning. Soon Quijia Pillajo was giving small talks to growers to help them improve their own greenhouses. “It was a really great experience. I would get growers together and give small talks, and they’d ask questions. It was all so they can learn,” he explained. But Quijia Pillajo was still curious, “I wanted it to be more sustainable, to not apply too many pesticides or fertilizers,” he said.

Wanting to learn the science behind microbial-based products and how they work, he returned to The Ohio State University, where he is currently in the second year of his Ph.D. program. His lab has a collection of around 1,000 bacteria, all of which are being screened to see which are best to improve phosphorus and iron nutrition.

His research seeks to identify bacteria that positively impact floriculture crops’ quality and understand what factors influence their beneficial activity. The goal remains the same: Helping growers address the inconsistent results of microbial products in crop production. He maintains that understanding the science and using that to select the best performing bacteria can improve greenhouse production systems to enhance crop quality and nutrient use efficiency.

The Paul Ecke, Jr. scholarship will not only support this research and continued education but also help with participation in research conferences, Quijia Pillajo said. He plans to use the money to fund additional workshops and experiments so he can further interact with growers and fellow scientists to nurture further career development.

As a new member of AFE’s Young Professionals Council, Quijia Pillajo is already finding multiple ways to share his knowledge and contribute to the industry’s future within AFE’s community as well as beyond. He has used AFE to find many educational and networking opportunities to support his growing passion for our industry.

Second Year Funding Awarded – Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholarship

Caleb Spall, Michigan State University

Second Year Funding awarded - Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholarship Recipient

Caleb Spall was awarded second year funding for the Paul Ecke, Jr Scholarship. Spall’s research is on Greenhouse Cultivation of Specialty Cut Flowers.

Because of AFE’s second year funding, Spall can continue conducting research investigating on how specialty cut flowers respond to changes in the greenhouse lighting environment.

Additionally, he is able to share the results of the research with growers and scientists at various conferences because of backing from AFE. He has also had the opportunity to travel abroad to visit commercial cut flower growers and see growing techniques firsthand on a large scale, which was inspiring and motivating.

When asked about his industry-related travel and hands-on learning, Spall noted, “These experiences have been incredibly rewarding and I am tremendously grateful to have AFE’s support.” He added that, “Support from the Endowment through the Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholarship over the past year has been integral to my graduate school experience.”

2022 Altman Family Scholars – Melissa Muñoz, Kaitlin Swiantek, and Prabhjot Kaur

Passionate industry advocacy is a staple for the Altman Family Scholarship. Created in 2015 by Ken and Deena Altman, this Scholarship seeks to support improvement in horticulture education and research by investing in outstanding, young industry professionals. 

The Altman’s believe in the power of giving back and do so through the reach of this scholarship and Altman Plants programs that offer growing expertise to the industry. This scholarship provides an annual scholarship ($5,000) to promising and dedicated graduate students pursuing a career in horticulture. For more information, click here.

Melissa Muñoz, Clemson University

A former Paul Ecke Jr. Scholar, Melissa Muñoz is eager to share her research into plant pathology with anyone, but especially growers back in her homeland of Colombia. As an Altman Family scholar, she plans to fund this critical communication effort.

“Doing successful research depends on continuous collaboration with the growers; if it wasn’t for them, it would be really hard to get the results we have,” she explained.” It is nice to keep them in the loop and to have their feedback; it is always important to share with them our results and discuss how else we can help and what can be improved… This award will allow me so many opportunities to network with growers, wholesalers, and scientists.”

Her work, as she explains simply and eloquently, is about mitigating that pesky grey fuzzy fungus – Botrytis – on the petals of roses. In earning her master’s degree in plant and environmental sciences at Clemson University, Muñoz worked on a Botrytis management project in cut roses. This research has been AFE-funded under Dr. Jim Faust. Through this project, Muñoz focused on characterizing the fungus and understanding its biology and infection process, and current management strategies.

What she found was a lot of evidence of resistance to fungicides. She has presented the findings along with Dr. Faust to AFE’s community through webinars, symposiums with growers, and articles. She has also participated as a moderator of AFE’s Grow Pro Series.

“We ended with a lot of answers but also a lot of questions,” she said. “We wondered ‘what do we do now?’ Then, we started looking for alternatives for management. Because we shouldn’t solely rely on fungicides, and we need to seek strategies that allow us to keep them effective for a longer time.”

In looking for alternatives, calcium emerged as a promising tool. Her doctoral work, also being done at Clemson, is focused on the calcium application process that triggers a defense mechanism in the rose that will prevent the disease, she explained. The technique of postharvest calcium applications has since become a standard industry practice in Colombia and the United States.

“We don’t hope for magic solutions, but to add to the toolbox for handling disease,” she said. “The more tools that you have, the better chance you have to successfully treat the disease. It’s all about giving the growers more strategies.” An inexpensive, natural solution, calcium also reduces the use of chemical fungicide, she said.

Her current research seeks to explain at a physiological and molecular level how calcium combats Botrytis blight.

Colombia produces around 65 percent of the roses in the United States. Rose production is a vital part of the economy, Muñoz explained, making her work with roses even more personal to her.

“It’s really nice to think that with our research, we can bring solutions for the growers of an industry that loads of families depend on,” she said. “Just to think you can make an impact in such a big industry is super amazing.”

Kaitlin Swiantek, University of Georgia

Kaitlin Swia Altman Family Scholarship Recipient

Kaitlin Swiantek wants to help build a pollinator highway by breeding landscaping plants that appeal to the everyday consumer. Her vision is currently focused on cultivating a variety of mountain mint (Pycnanthemum)that is attractive to both humans and pollinators.

“This is the best of both worlds,” Swiantek said. “You are designing a plant for aesthetics and the environment. You are working with environmentalism, supporting the promotion of pollinators, and you are appealing to people’s mental and emotional health.”

With help from the Altman Family Scholarship, Swiantek said she will expand her breeding program to screen more plants and achieve more phenotypic variation of the mountain mint. She hopes to hire more student assistants to help in the lab at the University of Georgia, where she is working towards a Master of Science in horticulture.

She needs keen eyes to observe visitation on over 100 plants. Her main goal with attracting bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, wasps, beetles, and other pollinators is to conserve biodiversity and pollinator populations.

Her efforts will be in line with environmental concerns related to the publicized decline in pollinators. She also wants to appeal to the consumers who are more in tune with the artistry of landscape design.

“The main goal is to breed for the consumer,” she explained. “I’m hoping I can develop a pollinator branch that combines pollinator support and consumer preference. We want to focus on what you like to look at, but we are also interested in the environment and conservations about pollinators and conservation.”

Mountain mint has not seen much cultivation but has a nice scent and attracts pollinators. Swiantek’s work is focused on breeding a plant that is more compact and uniform in shape but maintains a nice scent and maybe produces a slightly larger flower.

In developing this ornamental landscape plant, Swiantek hopes Pycnanthemum can help bridge pollinator habitats. The main objective remains consumer appeal, but she wants to marry that with pollinator appeal.

“Plants that serve a role beyond aesthetics are more beneficial to the environment and the consumer,” she said. “A beautiful plant is great, but a beautiful plant that also improves society is even better.”

Prabhjot Kaur, Michigan State University

Prabhjot Kaur Altman Family Scholarship Recipient

Prabhjot Kaur wonders, what if you could reduce production times and input costs from greenhouse heating and other resources in the floriculture industry?

Could you grow a petunia at suboptimal, lower temperatures, faster for less? 

What would that mean for other crops? After all, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are all members of the same family as petunia (Solanaceae).

In the fourth year of her Ph.D. program at Michigan State University, Kaur is seeking to answer these questions and more by focusing on understanding the genetics of development rate (rate at which plants produce new nodes), primarily in petunia (Petunia x hybrida).

Plant development rate varies across species and within germplasm pools, which indicates that there is a possibility to alter development rate to improve production efficiency (i.e., early flowering/fruiting), yield and biomass accumulation. Ultimately, Kaur wants to run a practical and applied horticultural breeding program after completing her Ph.D. The Altman Family Scholarship will provide the funds to help her make the transition from researcher to a career in the industry by facilitating her ability to attend conferences and workshops, she said. She’s excited to build her professional connections by perhaps attending the world Petunia meeting, visiting other research labs, and identifying future collaborations.

She is also eager to share the practical parts of her current research. Annually produced in heated greenhouses during winter, so they are ready for springtime customers, petunias offer Kaur a perfect plant to understand the techniques necessary for refining the development rate of a plant by manipulating genes. “The results of this study could be applied to increase the production efficiency of many vegetable crops that are grown in limited seasons, especially in the northern US where winters are long,” she explained.

This could also meet the growing public desire for locally grown produce, she said. Increased production efficiency, reduced reliance on resources, and facilitating multiple harvests per season would have both economic and ecological benefits, she said.

Having grown up in Punjab, India, a northwestern region known as ‘bread-basket’ because of its high wheat and rice production, Kaur knows the wider implications her research could have. Producing a better profit margin could be solved by breeding diverse horticultural crops.

“If you accelerate development rate, you accelerate crop timing, that would ultimately improve the production efficiency,” she said. “By learning all these techniques on a different crop, I can be a plant breeder that ultimately helps the grower.”

She is especially excited that the scholarship provides her with a sense of validation that her work is being recognized by the industry and will allow her to explore the next steps.

The Paul Ecke Jr. and Altman Family Scholarships exist to not only award aid to deserving recipients but to provide meaningful support for the industry. To read more about these prestigious opportunities and to apply, click here. Applications are due by February 1st each year. 

By Sarah Sampson